Are Parish Councils Competent?
By Mark F. Fischer
Published as “Are Parish Councils Competent?” Today’s Parish (November/December 1990): 15-16.
I sing in the church choir. I have never been overly discriminating when I accept compliments on the choir’s behalf, but a compliment we recently received set me thinking.
I was walking out the church, and a lady I had never met stopped me. “I just love your music,” she said in a high-pitched voice. Impressed with her vocal register, not to mention her display of musical taste, I said, “Would you consider joining our choir?” “No, thank you,” she said. “I really couldn’t; I’m tone deaf.”
Is a tone deaf person capable of appreciating a choir? Was her compliment utterly erased by her final comment? She was not sarcastic; she genuinely seemed to enjoy the choir. In light of her tone deafness, however, is her praise of the choir meaningless?
Such a question seems over-serious, considering the occasion that prompted it. But it points to a weighty issue for the parish: the competence, and hence the authority, of non-experts. What is the religious competence of the ordinary parishioner? Does a lay person have any special competence that the religious professional needs?
This is a real question, for upon it hinges the fate of pastoral councils. Councils were recommended at the Second Vatican Council to study and pass judgments on pastoral matters. No guidelines were laid down about how council members should be chosen. so councils typically contain people of a wide variety of experience and skill. What competence do they possess to the benefit of the church?
This initial question yields a further question. If the church believes that lay persons — by definition, not religious experts — have a certain competence in pastoral councils, then what is the authority of councils?
No subject is more controversial than authority in the parish community. When legitimately exercised, authority persuades with ease, and the authority who makes a sound decision gains the trust of the community. He or she acquires, in effect, more authority. When illegitimately exercised, however, when the authority oversteps the limits of competence and is proved a poor steward of the community’s trust, then authority undercuts itself. Weakened in force, the incompetent authority finds it increasingly difficult with each poor decision to lead and inspire.
Some would say that authority has no place in the Christian community. By defining authority as a power whose origins lie beyond the pale of rational scrutiny, they reject the concept of authority among those who seek the truth. For example, the German social philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, has argued that the very presence of “authorities” constrains our ability to reach a common truth in dialogue. These so-called authorities claim a privileged access to truth, Habermas suggests, on the basis of a power which they alone possess.
Many Church members would say that such a privilege does not harmonize with the radical equality of the Christian community. followers of Christ do not lord it over one another, regardless of whether their authority is due to technical expertise, standing in the community, or the oils of ordination. If authority depends on a power that only those with the power can judge, say these critics, then authority is an instrument of domination.
The Authority of Expertise
But we are not a community of absolute equals. Though we may not want to admit it, there is a legitimate exercise of power and authority. I respect the authority of the choir director in matters musical, affirm the authority my pastor has gained in years of care for the parish, and acknowledge the authority of the school principal, who guides our teachers and youngsters with success. These leaders possess what I call the first type of the authority of competence. Their authority springs from special knowledge. In technical discussions in their area of expertise, their opinions carry more weight than mine, and they should.
We easily acknowledge authority if it stems from competence in a specialized field. The proper exercise of authority by those with training and experience neither oppresses us nor hinders our ability to reach a common truth. Why? Because this authority does not depend on powers that can be judged only by those who have such powers. We can judge them too. Although we are not the authorities’ peers in their areas of competence, we can judge if they are gifted.
How is it that we, who are not all musicians, pastors, or educators, can still recognize excellence in those who are? The best answer to this question comes from Aristotle, who speaks of practical wisdom, the ability to see what is appropriate for the community in a given situation. It belongs to those with enough experience to gauge the whole (of parish life, for example), within which the parts of liturgy, pastoral care, and education fit. The enthusiastic lady with the high-pitched voice may not be able to sing, but she can tell that the choir makes a fitting contribution to the liturgy.
For our purpose, Aristotle’s practical wisdom describes the special competence of a group of non-experts. Practical wisdom is not the solitary possession of those rare people whose expert eyes see and understand the parts of a technical field. No, it belongs to a wider group of those who can judge the whole of things, the whole within which the parts have their rightful place. Aristotle defines it as “excellence in deliberation,” the ability to reach the truth of a matter through discussion.
The Authority of Wisdom
This brings us to the second type of the authority of competence. This type originates not in special training but in the experience of those who know how to reach the truth in discussion. It is the authority of wisdom. It belongs particularly to pastoral councils.
The members of a pastoral council may possess the authority of technical knowledge in their own individual fields. But technical knowledge per se is not essential to the councilor. Indeed, it may get in the council’s way, especially when the “expert” refuses to deliberate his or her insights with those lacking technical qualifications.
Technical discussion, in and of themselves, are in appropriate matter for the council. The councils should not neglect expert opinion, but such an opinion is not the only concern of the council, which must also take into account the history and character of the community that the expert serves.
Expert opinion is subordinate to the council’s real matter: deliberating the practical good for the community. Each of these key words deserves a comment. The council deliberates. It frees opinions from the contexts in which they originated and gives them a common shape. Its matter is the practical good, not some unchanging scientific truth, but a judgment about contingent affairs. And the judgment is made on behalf of the community, for the judgment is good or bad depending on how well suited it is to the people for whom it is made. When the council thoroughly weighs a general matter and, from among many possibilities, chooses the best one for the parish community, it exercises the authority of wisdom.
Competence of the Council
The deliberative authority of wisdom answers the questions we started with. Why did the bishops of Vatican II encourage the participation of non-experts on pastoral councils? Because the matter proper to the pastoral council does not hinge exclusively on expert opinion. A sound opinion on pastoral policy requires the insight of those who are affected by the policy. Parishioners are the ones who bear within themselves the history and character of the parish. A pastor who wants to serve them effectively cannot afford to ignore them.
And what is the competence of this council? It is the competence that stems from experience, the common experience of those striving to live out their faith. This competence expresses itself by the sharing of insight. No one person, not even an expert who has lived in the parish community for a lifetime, possesses the insight that a group can yield. Wise pastors rely on a council to clarify for them the Christian aspirations of their people, for no one can better judge pastoral policy than those whose very lives are at stake in formulating it.
What are the consequences of our distinction between the two authorities of competence? The first has to do with the pastor’s management of the council. Knowing the difference between technical competence and the competence of practical wisdom, he will ask his councilors to do what they do best: reflect on their experience and aspirations in the light of the gospel and develop a pastoral vision for the community. This will enable him to exercise his own authority, the authority of office, in a spirit of service and solidarity.
Distinguishing between the two kinds of competence also has consequences for the pastoral council chairperson. Council chairs should be chosen with an eye toward a particular technical ability: the ability to lead council deliberations. This is the skill, one could say, of a station yard master. The council chair not only must follow the trains of the members’ thought, but anticipate their destinations as well, throwing appropriate switches with an apt question, expediting the perishable freight of spirit, clearing the rails of idle chatter when the insight express barrels through.
The final consequence of our distinction has to do with the council’s own authority of competence in the sphere of practical wisdom. We know when our gifts are being abused. It would be an abuse for the council to try to pass expert judgment on the school curriculum, to plan liturgy, or to tell the youth minister what to do. These are tasks for qualified experts. When parish councilors tackle them, the results are disappointing.
But there is an appropriate scope for the council. When it deliberates the relation between the school and parish’s pastoral vision, the question of how the parish is praying the liturgy, or the needs of young adults, it makes good use of its gifts. The council demonstrates its competence when it reflects on experience in the light of the gospel and the needs of the community. Articulating its experience, comparing it with the vision to which the church has been called, and recommending ways to reach that vision — in these matters, the council speaks with authority.